So I've been watching boardwalk empire and kind of enjoying it (although fundamentally I think there's something missing from it for all its obvious effort and style). However, what has really struck me is the character of the Fed in charge of enforcing prohibition in Atalanta City, Nelson. Nelson seems to me an accurate portrayal and study of the nature of legalism. Nelson is portrayed as a Christian of sorts and is undoubtedly very religious. However, fundamentally he is not a Christian but rather a legalist. Someone who sets some laws and then uses those as his central way of viewing the world. Many people the world sees (and who see themselves) as Christians are nowhere near the Christianity of the Bible or Jesus but rather people who have latched onto some laws and now use these as their way of judging life. What we see in Nelson is that legalism creates a number of fruits none of which make him a likeable character.
The first fruit of legalism is gracelessness. The problem with legalism is that this becomes your truth through which you view the world. Therefore is people fail to keep your standards they are failures and obviously inferior to you. This leads Nelson to look down on and despise people who fail to meet his standards. This is perhaps most clealy shown in is relationship with his wife where any love or compassion or feeling is completely absent. However, this also impacts his view of himself. When he fails to meet his standards he despises himself and physically punishes himself to atone.
The second fruit of legalism is hypocrisy. Because we all fundamentally fail, legalism forces us towards hypocrisy. Either we hold standards we ourselves don't keep, like Nelson with sex and alcohol. Or we only make rules we can keep and therefore become hypocrites by doing things worse than those things we have made laws about. Legalist don't simple make laws they see as good they make laws they see as good but which they can also keep.
The third fruit of legalism is joylessness. As a result of legalism Nelson is not a happy person and those around him are not happy. Legalism becomes a weight over him and over those around him which creates a crippling pride which (as with all pride) at times inevitably leads to depression.
All of this is a million miles from the gospel and a million miles worse and yet many people in church exchange the grace, transformation and joy of the gospel for petty human legalism. The problem with this is not only does this fail to brings to God but whereas the gospel creates good fruit, legalism creates bad. Bad for us and bad for those around us. Nelson acts as a warning for all of us.